THE RONNIE IANE BENIFIT SHOW, AN AD
HOC agglomeration of Sixties British guitar stars and heavy friends,
arrived in San Francisco on December 1st, settling into the 12,500-seat
Cow Palace for a three-night charity stand for multiple-sclerosis
research. Predictably, the backstage scene for those three concerts
was a New Waver's nightmare. There, lolling among the potted
shrubs and old Fillmore posters arrayed around the blue-carpeted
guest enclosure, with Japanese lanterns and helium balloons bobbling
gaily overhead- there, looking for all the world as though they
had a right to go on sucking up air, were the ancient likes of
Boz Scaggs and Carlos Santana and Wavy Gravy and even Michael
Lang, the dimple-cheeked cherub who brought you (or your parents)
Woodstock. And whenever it seemed that the uncoolness quotient
reached a peak, somebody like Neal Schon of Journey would come
strutting through the gate and further thicken the Old Wave ambiance.
Conspicuous by their understandable absence from this frolic
were any of the leading young members of San Francisco's flourishing
new-music community. Why should they come? Why should they care?
Guitar stars? Sixties superheroes '? These kids suffered through
the superannuated scene for most of tlleir young lives-remember
the Seventies? That music just doesn't speak to them. And if
it did, it would have nothing to say. Right?
JEFF BECK IS THIRTY-NINE NOW, BUT HE
doesn't look appreciably different than he did in the Sixties,
when he was breaking guitar barriers with the Yardbirds or having
those celebrated wrangles with Rod Stewart in the Jeff Beck Group.
He is standing off to one side of the backstage artists' lounge,
his eyes fixed on a giant video screen and his mouth slightly
agape with admiration. The squirming, sweat-soaked image up Oo
the screen is that of Eric Clapton, relayed via closed-circuit
tra!lsmission from the stage out front. Clapton is fronting a
very solid band that includes bassist Bill Wyman and drummer
Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones and drummer Kenney Jones
of the Who, and they are leaning into a spirited rendition of
the old Freddie King hit, "Have You Ever Loved a Woman?"
As Clapton calls out a key change and suddenly bends back to
pluck a bunch of blue notes out of a D chord high up on the neck
of his guitar, Beck call orly wag his head in appreciation. "Great,"
he mutters, as Claptoln sails off above the shuffling rhythm."Fuckillg
great- there's nobody can touch him On that stuff;" Clapton's
guitar crests On a sparkling spray of notes, then tunnels back
down into the song as he shouts out another verse in his hoarse,
imploring voice. "He's having the time of his life:' says
Jeff Beck, beaming.
As the song ends, Beck stoops down to show something to Ronnie
Lane, the one-time Small Faces bassist, who's seated in a wheelchair
hy his side, It's a Polaroid snapshot of a glitter-clad groupie
who showed up at one of the two Dallas shows that kicked off
this brief benefit tour, which has united Beck and Clapton and
a host of other Sixties rock icons tor the first time in their
onstage careers. Ronnie gets a kick out of the picture, and Jeff
ruffles his hair with obvious affection, then disappears up the
stairs to the second-floor dressing room to prepare tor his own
Lane turns his attention back to the video screen, where Clapton's
long fingers are once again flying over the frets of his Stratocaster.
Ronnie's own hands lie limply in his lap, but he follows each
slurred note and hammercd string with the appreciative eyes of
a man who once played pretty fair guitar himself; back in the
old days. Suddenly, someone is sliding an actual guitar onto
Ronnie's lap; it's Boo Oldfield, his girltriend and tireless
aide-decamp. She's brought him a vintage Chet Atkins-model Gretsch,
a real beauty. Someone on the other side of the room is offering
it around for sale. Ronnie smiles and, with considerable concentration,
brings his left hand slowly up to the fretboard and lays his
fingers lightly across thc strings. It's as much as he can manage,
but it feels wonderful, just holding a guitar again. He hugs
it to his chest and stares back up at thc video screen, where
Clapton has been joined by Joe Cocker. Great, soulful singer,
Joe. And Eric and Bill and Charlie-such beautiful players. Ronnie's
face is suddenly filled, as it oftcn is these days, with a heart-swelling
mixture of warmth and wonderment. "To think that my having
something so negative...could result in something so positive,"
he says. Up on the screen, Joe Cocker closes his eyes and starts
to sing "Worried Life Blues."
MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS, OR MS, IS A TERRIFYING
disease; no secondhand summation of its ravages can convey the
horror of it more vividly than an encounter with one of its victims.
Lane's extraordinary spirit in the face of this cruelly crippling
affliction has had a galvanizing effect on his many musician
friends. They are all around forty now, famous "survivors,
"as it's inevitably put, from the first British rock generation
to be touched by brilliance. All share a common grounding in
the blues, but were often portrayed as pop "rivals"
in the Sixties and have rarely, if ever, come together as musicians.
In pursuing the style of music they learned to love as kids,
they have achieved often astonishing degrees of commercial and
artistic success- only to watch that popular esteem (if not their
long-running bank accounts) dwindle and sometimes disappear as
times change and fashions f1y by. Some have been undone by drink
or drugs, others by puzzling personal quirks. They have been
through the mill, and probably thought they had seen it all.
Then they saw Ronnie Lane.
Here was one of their own generation cut down like a weed in
what is generally thought to be the prime of life. lt was a chilling
experience. Bill Wyman, who once recruited the Small Faces from
an adjoining studio to play on his "In Another Land"
track on the Satanic Majesties album, recalls encountering Lane
at a 1981 Stones show.
"I was shocked to see him in that condition," Wyman
says. "I'd heard he wasn't well, but you never really realize
how afflicted people are until you actually see them again. I
mean,"you remember them as they were"I first found
out Ronnie was sick when I visited Eric, says Jeff Beck. "I
just happened to call on him, and the phone rang and it was Ronnie.
They were on the phone for a long time, and I started thinking,
"Come on, Eric: But then when he hung up, he told me. He
said, 'Ronnie's really, really bad.'"
But how could they help, when doctors
were at considerable pains to reassure Ronnie that no help was
possible? In the end, they had but one gift to give: although
their careers may no longer be powered by the passionate ambition
that had fueled their early fame, their commitment to the spirit
of music music as they understood it, which is to say blues-based
guitar-band music- remains undiminished even in deepening middle
age. Their gift would be music-music to battle this damnable
disease and, maybe, to beat back the night that was fast enshadowing
their own mortal turf. Music, in short, for life.
AS IT HAPPENED, THERE WAS HOPE. hyperbaric
oxygen treatment-a therapy not yet endorsed by MS specialists
- seemed to have a restorative effect on both Ronnie's body and
his mind. It wasn't a cure, by any means, but it seemed a start
of some sort, and Lane wanted to spread the word. So Ronnie approached
Eric Clapton, his old drinking buddy, and asked if Eric would
play a benefit concert in London- not just for Ronnie, but to
buy a hyperbaric machine that could be used by MS victims all
over the city. Clapton immediately agreed. Ronnie Lane, after
all, was a special part of his past.
"I first met him when the Small Faces were starting;"
Clapton explains one afternoon, seated in the lounge of a San
Francisco hotel. "It was in Charing Cross Road, in a cafe
called the Gioconda, which was well-known among out-of-work musicians.
It was one of those meetings where you feel a kindred spirit;
it seemed like I'd known him all my life.
"I remember bein' around him when
he first started to get signs of it;" Clapton says, sipping
from a glass of soda water. I didn't know what it was, nor did
he. No one did." Putting on a benefit for Lane proved relatively
simple. Glyn Johns, who'd once produced the Small Faces, agreed
to produce the show, and he in turn enlisted the aid of Ian Stewart,
the Stones' sometime piano player. Stewart recruited Watts, Wyman
and, during a party at Jeff Beck's house, he also snagged both
Beck and Jimmy Page, who had broken up his own band, Led Zeppelin,
after the death of drummer John Bonham in 1981. Page had since
become so legendarily reclusive that everyone apparently assumed
he was totally out of the game. 'There was a sort of Yardbirds
reunion in London last summer," Stewart explains, "
and apparently nobody asked Jimmy to play on it, and I think
he was a bit pissed off. So at this party, while I was discussing
the Ronnie Lane benefit with Jeff, Jimmy came up and he said,
"Nobody ever asked me to play. Why can't I play on it?"
So we said, 'Step-this way."
RONNIE LANE WAS ON THE VERGE OF REALIZING
one of the great rock fantasies of the Sixties: a group that
would include the three most celebrated guitarists from that
seminal guitar band, the Yardbirds. Jeff, Jimmy and Eric had
never played together on a stage. The Ronnie Lane benefit was
starting to sound like a rather special show. To add to the once-in-a-lifetime
aura, SteveWinwood and Kenney Jones came in on the event, Winwood
bringing along his own keyboardist, James Hooker, and Beck slotting
in his rhythm section: Simon Phillips on drums and Fernando Saunders
on bass. Sets and sections were worked up, all production costs
-lights, sound and so forth-were donated, and the Albert Hall
concert wound up making some $60,000 for England's Action Research
into Multiple Sclerosis (ARMS) cause. A video of the show, paid
for by the musicians and due out later this year, should further
That was supposed to have been it.
But, says Bill Wyman, "after Albert Hall,everybody was so
knocked out by the fun and the camaraderie of it that they said,
'We gotta do this again.'" The group finally settled on
a tour of the United States, with all proceeds going toward the
establishment of an ARMS branch in this country. Bill Graham
agreed to promote the shows gratis - a considerable donation,
considering the scarcity of suitable halls for multiple dates
at the height of the ice-hockey and basketball seasons. The all-star
ensemble with Joe Cocker pitching in to replace Steve Winwood,
who had prior commitments then flew to Dallas for three days
of rehearsals, got themselves fairly well together and set out
for a benefit blitz that would take them from Dallas to San Francisco
to Los Angeles and then would culminate in two shows at New York's
Madison Square Garden.
By all accounts, everyone involved gave it their very best shot:
no ego flare-ups, no extravagant road behavior and, most remarkable,
"The punctuality is frightening," Graham said one night
in San Francisco. "It's like having a scout troop out on
a hunt. It's hard to believe that it's rock & roll."
Wyman agrees: "The timekeepin' is astoundin'. When they
say, 'Be in the lobby at 6:30' and I get down there at 6:32,
everybody goes, 'Yer late! One van's left already!' I'm I used
to goin' down at 6: 30 and waitin' till 9:00, you know? And then
someone sayin', "Oh, Keith's still in bed. " Arranging
the order of performance might have been tricky under the normal
conditions of a commercial concert, but according to Clapton,
the running order seemed to work out quite logically.
"We decided I would be the host,
if you' like, because Glyil and I and Ronnie started this thing
rolling. So I thought I'd go on first and introduce everyone.
Then there'd be an intermission; then Jeff would go on, then
Jimmy- because it seemed apparent that Jimmy, being out of the
public eye for so long, would be the main attraction. Then we'd
all go on together for the finale."
Despite the ensemble's most strenuous
endeavors, however, there were still some rough spots by the
second show in San Francisco: no surprise, perhaps, given the
perilously brief rehearsal period that preceded the tour. Clapton's
set that second night lacked force-it must be years since he's
opened a show, and the lack of built-up audience energy to feed
off of took its toll. Andy Fairweather Low, whose early band,
Amen Corner, had one of the bluesiest British hits of l967 with
Gin House," turned in a fine reading of "Man Smart,
Woman Smarter," and Cocker, backed by Clapton's unit ( with
Fairweather Low on rhythm guitar), turned in unaffected, if unexceptional,
versions of such past hits as "You Are So Beautiful"
and "Feelin' Alright."The high point of the show was
Jeff Beck effortlessly masterful set, which featured superbly
controlled sonic displays by Beck, ferocious drumming by Simon
Phillips and a crystalline reworking of Curtis Mayfield's "People
Equally fascinating, in its own funky
way was the off-the-wall set by Jimmy Page, hadn't played in
public since the last Led Zeppelin tour, in 1977. As Kenney Jones
later remarked, "He's probably one of the bravest among
us - he 's really putting himself on the line."
Page's set was a triumph of style over
substance. With Beck and his keyboardist, Jan Hammer, cleared
out, a small white spot opened up on the right of the stage,
and suddenly, there he was: cigarette pasted to his lip, cascade
of black curls tumbling down over his eyes - the very picture
of wrecked rock star elegance. First, he removed his long white
scarf-to resounding applause, of course- then the various rings
on both his hands, and then he rolled up his sleeves and set
to work. Had he played not a note, the audience would have been
with him anyway. But he picked up his black Telecaster and leaning
back in classic Zep fashion, proceeded to dig into Prelude,"
a haunting instrumental piece from the soundtrack of Death Wish
II, which Page scored. After two more mysterioso instrumentals-an
arcane form at which Page is an unquestioned master- he brought
on Paul Rodgers, the former lead singer of Bad Company, a band
that recorded for Led Zeppelin's Swan Song record label. Page
and Rodgers have been collaborating recently: after an acceptable
flail at "Boogie Woman:' a tune off Rodgers' recently released
solo album, Page sat down with a Danelectro-one of the great
cheesy guitars of all time-and began diddling out a long and
haphazardly organized "work in progress" that, according
to Rodgers, who wrote the lyrics will eventually be called either
"Midnight Moonllight" or "Bird on the Wing."
This piece was to put it tersely, a rambling disaster. It was
followed by a supremely flaky instrumental rendition of the epochal
"Stairway to Heaven," toward the thrash-crazed end
of which Beck and Clapton strolled out and attempted, as best
they could, to join in. Page appeared to be on another planet.
The finale was direct and effective: Clapton peeling off rhe
intro to "Layla," with Beck and Page chiming along
and Wyman, Cocker and rhe rest of the crew pitching in too. Cocker
did a strong "Wirh a Little Help from My Friends,"
and then Ronnie Lane,dressed in a plain black suit, with an assistant
holding each arm, made his way to the front of the stage. "Thank
you very much," he said. "What do you think of my friends?"
The house erupted in thunderous applause, and Lane and the entire
company launched into a strong and charming version of-Leadbelly's
"Goodnight Irene." Almost three hours, and finis.
It was not a totally satisfying show,
partly because of the individual talents sometimes, of necessity,
had to be subservient to the ensemble sound. But there was still
one more show to go at the Cow Palace, and who knew what might
SATURDAY DAWNED DARK AND windy. There
had been a party the night before at Bill Graham's elegant digs
out in Marin County. No members of the press were allowed. but
according to all reports, it was a relatively restrained affair:
a certain amount of the traditional stimulants, music by Stax/Volt,
plenty of curry-but, according to Joe Cocker, "not enough
booze." Still, some revelers didnt make it back to
their hotel until seven the next morning.
More judicious souls spent the day
shopping. Macy's made a pile off this tour, and so did Wilkes
Bashford, the city's ritziest clothing store, where Kenney Jones
picked up some sports jackets and Eric Clapton went for shoes,
some Giorgio Armani shirts and a Kieselstein-Cord belt -lizard
with silver buckle-of the sort that retails for anywhere from
$335 to $6500. That may be the most titillating backstage factlet
of this otherwise decorously conducted tour-with the obvious
exception of anything Jimmy Page was up to in the long hours
he spent in his hotel room. There were the tiniest intimations
of tension between Clapton, who kicked a debilitating drug problem
more than a decade ago, and Page, about whom such a thing has
never been said. But when asked how he sees Page and, for that
matter, Beck after all these years, Eric is intentionally obscure:
"I think their characters have become very clear- have become
At the end of the show each night,
when the rest of the musicians would mix backstage, Page would
climb directly into a waiting van and be whisked back to his
hotel. This was the most in-demand session guitarist in London
in the mid Sixties - a man credited with playing on early records
by the Kinks, the Who and half of the rock acts that set foot
in a studio - and yet here he is twenty years later and he can't
get invited to a Yardbirds reunion. And when he finally does
set foot on stage after a six-year layoff, he whips out a near-solo
instrumental version of "Stairway to Heaven" and another
song that's not even completed yet. The man is a mystery.
"This tour has got him moving
again," says Ian Stewart, whos fond of Page, "and
I hope he can find something to do after this. Its a shame
that he just sits at home and does nothing. He seems to miss
John Bonham very much; bur at the same time, I think he'd like
to play. It's just that . . .maybe nobody asked him for two or
three years; I don't know. Jimmy's pretty laid back, really.
He's still very interested in music. He's always coming up with
obscure things, like classical things and Bulgarian folk things.
We had a big natter the other night about Django Reinhardt guitar
solos. So the interest is still there; he just needs a bit of
AS IT TURNS OUT, THERE WAS motivation
aplenty in the Saturday edition of the San Francisco Chronicle,
in which pop critic Joel Selvin, reviewing the Thursday-night
show, praised Jeff Beck ("sensational"), faint-praised
Clapton ("agreeable") and deep-sixed Page as possibly
"one of the most overrated guitarists in rock."
At least partly in response to this
cavalier slagging, one suspects, the show that final night in
San Francisco was the best of the three-night stand. Clapton
sweat through his set, and it was about as good as straight white
blues gets. Beck, playing without a pick, was once again brilliant-
the most aggressive and incisively lyrical guitarist on the big-time
circuit. (Singer Marla Muldaur sat in the audience shouting,
"Eat your heart out, Jerry Garcia!")
But the real killer, charismawise,
was JimmyPage. When he wove out onto the stage wearing a pair
of Lennonesque wire-rim shades and the kind of screaming, spangled
lapel jacket that nobody's had the courage to manufacture since
1968, and leaned into the microphone with a pointed "Good
evenin' -it's nice to see some friendly faces our there,"
well, one couldn't help but suspect he'd spent the entire day
in his room reading Selvin's review.
"I think I should make one announcement,"
he said silkily. "Now is the time for the people in the
press boxes to go out and get a drink." And without further
ado, he peeled off- that wacky jacket, strapped on his guitar
and-grasping the neck as if it were Joel Selvin's -pumped out
a set's worth of bold and often beautifully textured guitar.
"Boogie Woman" came across with real crunch, and even
the "work in progress" sounded a little more together.
"Stairway to Heaven," after all these years, is probably
a matter of individual taste.
The concert concluded splendidly: although
Page was noticeably out of tune by the time "Layla"
came around, Clapton and Beck locked into the rifts and didnt
let go."With a Little Help from My Friends," with all
four drummers slamming down on those famous prechorus fills and
Cocker turning in one his strongest vocals, was every bit the
equal of the famous Woodstock performance fourteen years ago.
By the time Ronnie Lane was guided out for "Goodnight Irene,"
it was clear that these creaky old geezers still have a lot of
wallop -and heart and soul-left in them.
They also seem very clearly defined
in light of this emotional event: Clapton, the dignified, in-the
tradition bluesman, limited only by his material, not his talent:
Beck, the erratically recorded but undeniable inheritor of the
great screamer-guitar tradition of the Sixties: and Page, the
sensitive space case. What did they get out of all of this? The
pleasure of one another's company, says Beck.
We've never been rivals-it was only
the press that ever made it seem so. This has been a ball. I
realize that you've got to go out and play and tour, and not
just purely rely on video to reach the masses. Because video's
not happening, really, to me. A live concert is still magic and
always will be. I mean, there's no substitute for the real thing."
"When I saw Ronnie," Clapton
says, "I knew that there was a way that I could help him,
that it was possible to do this. It doesn't take much. It just
takes a little bit of time and a little bit of sincere work.
And the rewards are boundless, you know?"
Would it be trite to attribute the
Ronnie Lane benefit tour to that much vaunted "spirit of
"Yeah, that could be true,"
Clapton says.'There was a great deal of camaraderie in the Sixties
that doesn't seem to exist now-a lot of cross-referencing going
on, which I don't see much of now. But then, I don't hang out
with the young generation. I stay with my own kind. Maybe it
does go on, who knows?"
WELL, BILL GRAHAM KNOWS. AFTER the
final Cow Palace concert, Graham lets slip a little story. "I
shouldn't tell you this," he says, correctly, "but
Neal Schon was here last night, and he said, 'Bill - we should
do this. The young musicians! We could get Carlos Santana and
EddieVan Halen and myself together. . .'
"And I said, 'Come onnnn, are
you kidding?' " Graham chuckles at the absurdity of the
idea, "I said. 'Which part would you play?' "